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Holes In The Whole: Introduction to the Urban Revolutions

Holes In The Whole: Introduction to the Urban Revolutions

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Holes In The Whole: Introduction to the Urban Revolutions

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148 pagine
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Oct 26, 2012


'Holes in The Whole' seeks meaning and reasons for the existence of the city. It demonstrates the urgent need to expand the sphere of urban activity - to define the city not only as a territory of exploitation, but as space of human existence in its fullest dimension. The book defines the conditions under which the city can develop as an entity without falling into the trap of arrogant self-sufficiency. It identifies the mechanisms that promote independent fragments, including people, neighbourhoods and regions, so that they are not random, unsystematic bunches, but stable (yet flexible) structures.

Oct 26, 2012

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Holes In The Whole - Krzysztof Nawratek


Why urban revolutions?

Recent years have brought a growing interest – even a fascination – with the city. A certain change in how cities are talked and written about can also be observed. This change is about growing optimism and the belief that the best time for cities is yet to come. A good example of this is a book by Edward Glaeser released in 2011, in the midst of the ongoing crisis, entitled ‘Triumph of the city’. The title speaks for itself. Another characteristic example is a book by Nan Ellin, who quotes Saskia Sassen, Richard Florida and Alvin Toffler (a known anti-urbanist¹) in her book ‘Integral Urbanism’ to impress upon the reader the belief that the modern city is in good condition.

Similarly, in another book published at the top of the speculative real estate bubble, ‘Social Economy of the Metropolis. Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism and the Global Resurgence of Cities’, Allen J. Scottt puts forward the dual argument (which is representative of this optimistic view on the future of cities and therefore worth discussing) that cities are the effect of capitalism and its natural environment. Cognitive, knowledge-based capitalism is then to bring about the golden era of the city. There are hundreds of books presenting the same argument in different variants. Can so many authors be wrong?²

In my opinion yes³, and for anyone who is familiar with my previous book it shouldn’t be a surprise. Cities are not alright and this diagnosis is a starting point for this book. Indeed the problem of modern western cities is that they exist only by the power of inertia or are rapidly shrinking (the phenomenon of ‘shrinking cities’ in Germany or the United States). There are cities, like Berlin, whose existence is solely based on political will. There is no industry in Berlin but there are a lot of people who could be included in the ‘creative class’. According to those who still believe Richard Florida, this is a city that should flourish. It is true that Berlin is a good place to live, especially for young people seeking cultural entertainment. Unfortunately it is the German state that is paying for this good life – Berlin is heavily indebted and unable to live without the financial state drip. There are also cities that are nothing more but big playgrounds of consumption and entertainment, such as Dubai and Wolfsburg.

Although Alvin Toffler is no longer fashionable today⁴, his predictions of escape from major urban centres seem to be accurate. The main reason for this is the way that knowledge is produced and distributed in the knowledge based economy of today. Contrary to the previously mentioned thesis of Alan Scott, it appears that cognitive capitalism doesn’t work for the city: today, ‘creative cities’ are indebted cities⁵. It seems then that the fascination with fluidity and creativity, with art and culture as driving forces of modern urban development is a kind of delusion, having little to do with what modern cities are and what their future may be.

It is worthwhile to stop for a moment and to try to explain the reasons for the widespread belief that today cities are at their peak. Indeed, most of the world’s income is generated in cities⁶; it is, however, difficult to put this observation into the context of the financial and fiscal crisis that first hit cities at the end of the 1970s and which has been deepening since 2008. As I wrote in ‘City as a political idea’, it is not cities but urban areas that can be successful. This distinction is crucial – cities are not entities in an economical and political sense. They no longer decide their own fate and have instead become a resource of space, buildings, infrastructure and people (as consumers and employees). These resources are utilised by phenomena transcendent to cities – mainly global corporations.

European and North American cities are mostly defined as post-industrial. After the fall of industry, or its export to Asia, what remains in these cities is still unfilled holes in space (brown-field sites) and social tissue (the redundant working class). Today, most of these cities in the West are shrinking, with very few exceptions such as London or Paris, while Asian, South American and African cities are growing. It is important to realise that these growing cities are not post-industrial, but – especially in China – their success comes from combining strengths of the industrial city with the city as the centre of knowledge production and consumption. However, even growing cities – although in different ways to cities in the West – are mostly unable to exercise power over themselves. Spaces controlled by global corporations, the state (military sites, roads, railways) and natural reserves protected by international agreements (such as European Union areas protected by the programme Natura 2000) are beyond the control of the city authorities. I would then risk the thesis that contrary to optimists who see a bright future for our cities’, one can have doubts whether there is any future for cities at all. This doubt stems from the fact that in contrast to fortified forts, market towns and even cities from the industrial era, cities today do not seem necessary at all.

The city is unnecessary and its artificiality is perfectly visible in Dubai and Las Vegas. Dubai is almost perfectly apolitical – only 10% of its population have local citizenship⁷ while Las Vegas⁸ is a city that lives almost entirely from consumption. Both Dubai and Las Vegas are cities serving as playgrounds for people from other, ‘real’ cities – if they exist.

Dubai is an artificially calculated city-like product. It is a trap for a modern consumer, selling emotions and orgiastic excitement. It is, however, exceptional in its reaction to the 2009 crisis. When it was expected that Dubai awaited a fate similar to other global cities, 10 billion dollars from Abu Dhabi restored its financial stability. Today it is again, albeit on a smaller scale, a place attracting investors⁹. However, it seems that it wasn’t that Dubai the city survived the crisis; rather it was the financial structures of the Arab world that saved it.

A question arises: What in fact is the raison d’être of the city? Is there anything unique produced in the city? It isn’t food – it may be vital for us to survive, but (with few exceptions) it is produced outside the city. Neither is it industrial products, as the industrial city is the product of a bygone era. Today production (in the West) takes place outside cities, in industrial clusters or high-technology zones, drawing inspiration from Silicon Valley, which, after all, is not a city.

The most archaic feature of the city as a place where the culture, language and codes of a society – thus power – is produced. Today culture is also produced on the Internet, in isolation from any city or physical locality.

For years, the city was defined as ‘a densely populated area of permanent residence, in which food is not produced’. Today, from Havana to Detroit even this dogma is being questioned. What then does determine the city – even as a resource, not a subject – as a phenomenon? What makes it unique?

The answers we are looking for lie in the number of inhabitants of the city and the density of interactions. It is helpful to refer to Adam Smiths classic theses concerning the division of labour in order to understand that the phenomenon of the city comes in fact from millions of small subsystems, based on their own and often distinctly different logic and interwoven with each other into a bigger system. In the city these subsystems are easily accessible not only because physical distances are small, but also because the language-interface, which subsystems use to communicate with each other, is more or less codified in a given city. The language-interface is one of the key concepts that I will be using in this book and a more detailed explanation will appear in following chapters. At the moment, an intuitive understanding of the language can be used; we will define it as a medium allowing for exchange of information and engaging in effective relationships.

Very often, especially when we talk about financial operations, it is definitely closer from Wall Street in New York to London City than from the City to Peckham, one of the poorest areas of London. Both the accessibility and the language which financial centres use to communicate with each other can make the bond between two geographically distant places stronger than that between two districts of the same city. The city can therefore be seen as a locality, but one defined by proximity in terms of accessibility and interface, not necessarily associated with spatial location.

In the 1990s a dispute erupted among geographers about ‘the end of geography¹⁰, which well illustrated the fascination with technology, the dominance of finance over industrial production and the idea of non-spatial availability. However, although this dispute cannot be resolved using the 19th century categories, it is worth commenting on it from the meta-level using the geographic concepts of availability and the interface for communication between fragments.

This dispute put at its centre concepts which at first glance seem archaic but are in fact again at the centre of the current political debate. For example, the Big Society idea promoted by the UK’s Conservative coalition government in 2010-2011 deals with questions of locality and local community. To interpret locality as the Conservatives do is to refer to Heidegger’s (post) phenomenological legacy with its obsession of dwelling. In its distorted form this understanding of dwelling could be turned against nomads such as Jews, Roma, Travellers and immigrants in general. Obviously, recalling Heidegger it can also lead to risky simplifications such as ‘locality=Nazism’. It is tempting to use it in an argument and however justified, it is more interesting to take a closer look at the idea of locality in this concept instead.

There are many studies devoted to the segregation of urban space showing strong attachment between residents to districts they live in. It is very important to realise that this locality was to some (often significant!) degree forced. People used to live and work next to each other because they belonged to a particular social class, ethnic or religious group. It was in fact an exact transfer of the rural social structure into the urban environment. This understanding of locality in the city has changed as we do not trust our neighbours now as much as in the past and – both result and factor of this – because life in the city is not confined to one district only. People live and work in different parts of the city; they send their children to schools in other districts and all of it is possible because of efficient transport links within the city. Some places get new roads and some don’t, some places get free Internet access and some don’t – it is the act of communication that is important, not its nature. Locality then has not disappeared and even if now people have more in common with their Facebook friends than with their next door neighbours, it is still the connection between them that matters. However, it cannot be seen in the banal dichotomy of the geographical versus the virtual.

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